Turbidites were first properly described by Arnold H. Bouma (1962), who studied deepwater sediments and recognized particular "fining-up intervals" within deep water, fine-grained shales, which were anomalous because they started at pebble conglomerates and terminated in shales. This was anomalous because within the deep ocean it had historically been assumed that there was no mechanism by which tractional flow could carry and deposit coarse-grained sediments into the abyssal depths.
Bouma cycles begin with an erosional contact of a coarse lower bed of pebble to granule conglomerate in a sandy matrix, and grade up through coarse then medium plane parallel sandstone; through cross-bedded sandstone; rippled cross-bedded sand/silty sand, and finally laminar siltstone and shale. This vertical succession of sedimentary structures, bedding, and changing lithology is representative of strong to waning flow regime currents and their corresponding sedimentation.
It is unusual to see all of a complete Bouma cycle, as successive turbidity currents may erode the unconsolidated upper sequences. Alternatively, the entire sequence may not be present depending on whether the exposed section was at the edge of the turbidity current lobe (where it may be present as a thin deposit), or upslope from the deposition centre and manifested as a scour channel filled with fine sands grading up into a pelagic ooze.
It is now recognized that the vertical progression of sedimentary structures described by Bouma applies to turbidites deposited by low-density turbidity currents. As the sand concentration of a flow increases, grain-to-grain collisions within the turbid suspension create dispersive pressures that become important in hindering further settling of grains. As a consequence, a slightly different set of sedimentary structures develops in turbidites deposited by high-density turbidity currents. This different set of structures is known as the Lowe sequence, which is a descriptive classification that complements, but does not replace, the Bouma sequence.
The distinction is that, in a normal river or stream bed, particles of rock are carried along by frictional drag of water on the particle (known as tractional flow). The water must be travelling at a certain velocity in order to suspend the particle in the water and push it along. The greater the size or density of the particle relative to the fluid in which it is travelling, the higher the water velocity required to suspend it and transport it.
Density-based flow, however, occurs when liquefaction of sediment during transport causes a change to the density of the fluid. This is usually achieved by highly turbulent liquids which have a suspended load of fine grained particles forming a slurry. In this case, larger fragments of rock can be transported at water velocities too low to otherwise do so because of the lower density contrast (that is, the water plus sediment has a higher density than the water and is therefore closer to the density of the rock).